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Lessons Learned from a Six-Month Home Renovation

If you’ve been following my blog for a little while, you’ll know that Sven and I bought a beach house down at the Jersey Shore in October 2014. The house was a bit of a fixer-upper, but we didn’t have the opportunity to renovate it in time for last summer. Instead, we simply made it inhabitable – a project we dubbed Operation: Lipstick on a Pig. Finally, in November 2015, we broke ground on our full gut reno. Nearly six months later, we’re now in the home stretch! Here are a few lessons we learned along the way, as well as a sneak peek into one of our most transformed rooms!

The 25% expense contingency is real. As much as we carefully budgeted in anticipation of all the expenses, small upgrades and unforeseen circumstances do add up. Although, we were lucky that the additional expenses were generally not a result of any of the big three pitfalls we’ve heard other homeowners experience:

  1. Contractor bait-and-switch, as in telling you something is cheaper than it is to get you to sign the contract. In fact, whenever we wanted to exceed our budget, our contractor was very clear about it.
  2. Contractor trying to up-sell us on things that were not originally in scope. I was skeptical when we ended up needing a new staircase when originally our contractor was sure he could make the old one work. He might have overpromised his ability to save it, but I do believe it was in the interest of trying to save us money. In the end, replacing it was the right call. (It does help that Sven is a structural engineer to verify such statements!)
  3. Unexpected expensive problems. We did not have a near-disaster, HGTV-style critical-choice story arc. We had a few small issues that ended up costing us a little bit more (see: new staircase), but all-in-all, we were lucky that everything went fairly smoothly.

So what did we spend an extra 25% on? The finer things. This is where Sven surprised me in a stunning role reversal where he wanted to spend more money than I did, but rightly so. He wanted to spend the extra money on the construction phase to get the nicer floors, tiles, plumbing, and structural elements right. These are things that would be more expensive to change later and are better to get of higher quality now. Even though we agreed to a budget, as a rookie homeowner it’s hard to know the difference between $5/sqft tile and $10/sqft tile until you’re actually in the store choosing it for your home. And I have to say, I am in love with our hardwood floors and marble tiles! (And yes, Honey, you were right about spending the extra $1,000 to recess the ceiling beam in the middle of the kitchen!)

A good contractor is money. Literally. Throughout this process, we ended up meeting and talking to so many people who were unhappy with their contractors for multiple reasons. One of the reasons we delayed our renovation for a year was because we interviewed four contractors and it took a while for all of them to come back to us with proposals, and we had a very thorough vetting process. It was worth the wait. There were times where I wanted to punch our contractor in the nose, but in the end, he really was the best choice for the job. I can’t guarantee these are the reasons he turned out great, we could have just been lucky, but here are some criteria we believed set us up for success: He was recommended by our real estate agent, he is a local guy who lives in town, and he was not the cheapest nor the most expensive contractor we interviewed. His proposal was very detailed, explicit and several pages long. Don’t trust contractors that won’t give you detailed proposals, and don’t trust contractors who compete on price. You get what you pay for!

It takes up A LOT of time. My blog writing, maintaining friendships, and enjoying the spring weather have all suffered as a result of every weekend being devoted to getting the house ready, on top of a demanding day-job. Whether it’s checking in with the contractor, choosing slabs, looking at lighting fixtures, or DIY-ing to save money…it seems that nearly every weekend has been all about the beach house. I’m not complaining! It will be awesome when it’s all said and done, and well worth it. (But I apologize for the lack of writing lately! I got home from a business trip early today, attacked this lengthy post, and reached out to several of my friends that I haven’t seen in ages!)

We kept the fighting to a minimum! In fact, I don’t think we really fought at all. We definitely had disagreements, but nothing that turned into all-out warfare. It made me smile when Sven sent me a text that said that he told his parents we’ve been a great team throughout the renovation. (Apparently they were worried it would be rough on our marriage.) We balance each other out, and that definitely was more helpful than hurtful during this process!

But it’s not over yet! We have about a month’s worth of finishing touches left to go. Hopefully we can slide in there just before Memorial Day. Here’s a sneak peek of our progress, including a small DIY project Sven and I contributed!

This was our mudroom before we bought the house.

This section of the house was previously an exterior wraparound porch that had been converted into an interior storage space. The photos are two sides of the same room. If you look closely, you can see that the door leading to the backyard has actually been sealed shut and rendered useless. In fact, from the outside, it was covered in vinyl siding so you wouldn’t even know there was a door there!

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During Operation: Lipstick on a Pig, we staged it to look like an extra bedroom (using my teenage bedroom linens) so the house would appraise higher for our home equity loan. We did nothing to it structurally, and we hid the ugly, useless door with a cheap curtain. (The appraiser didn’t look behind it!) (p.s. the “bed” is actually an air mattress atop some cushions.)

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Then, we gutted the place. Our plan was to turn this room into a half bath/laundry room/mudroom, and to reopen the door so we could enter from the back deck when we have sandy feet from the beach!

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Then, in what would be the only relatively major “unexpected” issue, we learned that the foundation for this room couldn’t be saved. I say “unexpected” because we always knew it would be a possibility, we just wouldn’t be sure until it was gutted. So, they tore this entire section of our house down (I kind of freaked out when we first pulled up and the side of our house was just missing)! Then, they started to build it back up again.

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Fast forward to when the walls came back up and the new tile went in! It looks like a house again. Now the room is split into two sections, with the new half bath in the back, and a brand new, functioning door to the backyard (which still needs to be stained).

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But Sven and I didn’t want to stop there. We wanted to shiplap the walls to give the room a clean, beachy vibe. However, by this point in the project, the cost to buy and install shiplap was beyond our budget. So we rolled up our DIY sleeves again, and generally followed this tutorial from Hooked on Houses to install our own shiplap for under $500 (and five days of labor).

First, we bought sheets of plywood underlayment at Home Depot and had them cut them into 6″ strips for us (for free!). I sanded the edges while Sven located the studs and cut the pieces we needed around all the windows, doors, and electrical outlets. (Sven is obsessed with tools, so he owns a variety of saws.) Using an air-compressor electric nail gun, we hung up all the wood planks, spackled the nail holes, and let it dry.

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Finally (for now), we painted the walls white (Benjamin Moore Decorator’s White in Eggshell to be exact), and we couldn’t be happier with the result! There’s also a peek of the shower in there (the shower door and bathroom door haven’t been installed yet). Unfortunately, I didn’t snap these photos until the evening, but the white shiplap walls look glorious in the sunlight!

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So that’s a small glimpse of what six months of renovations look like! The contractors still have to install the trim, paint the ceilings, install the fixtures, countertops, and stain the exterior doors. Then, we can furnish and decorate! We love how we repurposed an afterthought of a storage room into a functional mudroom with a bathroom and laundry (adding value)! We can’t wait to see the final before/after!

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